Last summer, shortly before the start of the new semester, I received a visit from a peculiar gentleman. When I saw his face for the first time, his features seemed too exotic to be Japanese. His close-set eyes were sunk deeply into his skull and the bridge of his nose remained narrow throughout its great length. This man must have some western blood in him, I thought. Nevertheless, his height was on-par with the typical Japanese male and, when set against his rugged square shoulders, gave an impression of imbalance. As I surveyed his balding skull and the soft, dangling strands of hair that adorned it, I got a strong sense that I had seen this man somewhere before.

“If you will call me Murase,” he mumbled.

“I beg your pardon?”

He did tell me his first name, but I struggle to recall it. His speech sounded clumsy, like someone from the country trying to sound polite. The reason that the man had decided to visit me was that I had written a piece about my trip to the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte and, after reading it, he had mistaken me for an expert conducting research on the chap. We proceeded to exchange pleasantries—in a manner of speaking—before the man, despite a sudden show of nerves, solemnly proclaimed:

“I be the reincarnation of Napoleon.”

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It is hard to tell exactly where sanity ends and madness begins. Indeed, most people are perfectly sane, while a few are obviously mad; but, as a matter of course, there must also be people who are somewhere in the middle. Some of the people around us seem to be normal but harbour intense tendencies towards insanity, while some speak or act unconventionally but are not actually insane. Up until now, I have come across two such people, who, by a strange stroke of coincidence, shared a common association with Napoleon Bonaparte. The first was Dr. Kimbe Minamisawa, and the second was a gentleman in his fifties who, as I recall, went by the name of Murase.

Dr. Minamisawa’s madness was not the kind that would be recognized by a member of the medical profession; he was, in every respect, a normal member of society, and his ability as a technician was most likely second to none. But just as a man obsessed with baseball is ‘mad about baseball’ and a man infatuated with women is ‘mad about women’, Dr. Minamisawa was also, to some extent, mad. He was ‘Napoleon mad’.

ImageThe coffee shop ‘El Mar’ was on a small side-street off the main drag in Aoyama. It was just past ten on a cold windy night. I don’t remember exactly what had brought me to that place. I could see the red of the electric fire through the large wooden lattice style glass door. It looked perfectly warm inside and a faint smell of coffee drifted out from within.

I pushed open the door with the shoulder of my coat and stepped inside. It was silent in there, and there were no other customers in sight.

“Make yourself at home!” The scrawny waitress said as she made her way over. “What are you having?” she asked.

“I’ll have a hot coffee.”

“Is that a regular blend?”

“Do you have a selection?”

“Yes, we do.”

I opened the menu on the table in front of me. Columbian, Arabian Mocha, Guatemalan, Kilimanjaro, Cona, Blue Mountain. My head was a blur. I needed something with a kick.

“I’ll have a Blue Mountain, please.”

The lighting in the room had been dimmed and there was no music. It was the perfect place to take an absent-minded mental break. I rested my back on the cushion, placed both hands behind my neck and indulged in a long, deep yawn. Vague thoughts drifted in and out of my head.

Suddenly, two slips of dim orange light appeared to wriggle somewhere in the shadow of the curtain to my right. When I looked over I noticed a large glass tank and one unconventional looking fish revealing only its head from beneath the water-weed.

What the hell is this? I thought. Its whiskered face vaguely resembled that of a catfish, and above its mouth, which was warped into the shape of the character ‘へ’, two scarlet coloured bead-like eyes glowed brightly. It was hard to believe that these were the eyes of a real living fish.

But that wasn’t all. Upon closer inspection, the body was perfectly well formed. However, the flesh appeared to be completely see-through giving the impression that a fish head on bones was swimming around in the tank.

The fish momentarily placed its mouth against the glass of the tank and surveyed me closely with its bright orange eyes before flapping its tail and dorsal fins to change position. However you looked at it, the proportion of head, bone and guts was low. Could the body of a living thing possibly be this transparent? I wondered. A thick bone ran down the centre of the body and smaller ones, placed at regular intervals, formed a comb like structure along the top. The structure rolled flexibly and in line with the movement of the body much like the fluid motion of a cilia plant. I was completely engrossed in its mysterious appearance.  

“You’re quite obsessed with it, aren’t you?” The sudden presence of the female voice caught me off guard once again. When I turned around there was a girl standing nearby wearing a long chestnut coloured coat. Another customer? I wondered. When did she arrive?

“Well, it’s extremely rare.”

“That fish is a glass cat, you know.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. I’m sure it is. Can I sit down here?” Before I had chance to answer, the girl had sat down beside me. She was pale, with large eyes, and must have been in her early twenties.   

“When you look at the colour of those eyes, you kind of feel like you’re about to be pulled to the depths of the ocean, don’t you?” Her approach was over-familiar.

“I didn’t even know this kind of tropical fish existed.”

“There are a lot of them around. Although one this big is pretty rare.”

“But it’s perfectly see through.”

“I think they call it a transparent.”

A transparent?”

“Yes. With see-through fish, you have fully see-through ones and half see through ones. The fully see-through ones are call transparents. And the half see-through ones are called translucents. Ah, and then you’ve got the ones that glow silver and look see-through. They’re what you call silver types.

“You really know your stuff.”

“That’s because I’ve lived abroad. I saw lots of them in South America. This type of fish is really interesting. You put it in the tank with other fish.”

“And?”

“And it makes friends with the other fish and even their bodies gradually become see-through.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course. I think it has some kind of contagious power.”

“It’s quite a conjurer!”

For a moment we both stared, together, at the see-through conjurer inside the glass tank, although my mind was beginning to wander away from the fish itself.

I stole a look at the girl out of the corner of my eye. The finger, which she had placed on her cheek, was long and the silver nail varnish which covered it was perfectly befitting. She felt my gaze and raised her head.

“I bet you think that I’m a weirdo!”

“No, of course not. Do you come here often?”

“It’s my first time. I was just feeling a bit irritated and stepped inside for a change of scene.”

“It’s my first time too. Are you a student?”

“Do I look like one? I’m just a girl. That’s enough isn’t it? You met me by chance and you’re enjoying the adventure.” She had a mischievous tone which matched the look in her eyes.

“Are you having another coffee?” I asked.

“I feel like something stronger.”

“Are you a drinker?”

“Not exactly.”

We left the shop together and as we were waiting at the first traffic light the girl made her move and dived under my left shoulder.

“I’m cold,” she said, shivering. “Take me somewhere with a warm bath.”

(To be continued….)

Hypnotist by Showa Kato

October 31, 2011

Speculation echoed through the audience.

“Surely only the inducer himself can reverse a hypnotic trance.”

From his chicken like state, the induced in question was clearly unable to grasp the weight of the situation. He simply stood on the stage flapping his arms whilst staring down at the fallen hypnotist. A heart attack had spelled premature death for Gordon, the so-called top-class hypnotist. However Robert the human chicken remained. And this was causing major problems.

“There’s no way a grown man can go on like that for ever,” said a nearby psychiatrist as he tried in vain to reverse the trance.

The consensus was that the task of reversing Robert’s trance should be left to those who knew best and before long, expert hypnotists had flocked to the site to have a go. However, at the end of the day Gordon’s trances were top-class and the task of reversing the human chicken proved impossible.

Just as it was looking like a life of feathers for Robert, two men appeared before the experts.

“I’ve heard a rumour. This man can surely reverse Robert’s trance,” said the less familiar man.

“Doctor Jupiter!” exclaimed one of the experts, recognising the second man straight away. Jupiter was well-known as the world’s number-one hypnotist. The other man was his manager.

The experts shook their heads. “We’ve experimented with a good amount trances in our time, but this challenge is surely impossible. Without Gordon himself, there seems to be no way of helping poor Robert,” they explained.

But Jupiter’s manager seemed more confident. “Of course we’ve also worked that into our plans. For the time being, let Jupiter weave his magic. I’m confident that he will succeed.”

The experts decided that there was nothing to lose and guided the two men to the hospital room where they found Robert, still flapping around. He welcomed them with an impressive “bwwaaaaaakkkk!”

“Now let’s leave Jupiter alone with Robert and wait outside,” said the manager.

The experts retreated reluctantly and a mood of deep intrigue filled the room outside as they waited in silence wondering what technique Jupiter might apply to reverse the trance.

Suddenly the door opened and Robert came out of the room. “Sorry to have troubled you all! I’ve safely returned to my normal self,” he said.

“Of course only the world’s number-one hypnotist could reverse such a trance in such a short time,” said the manager. The experts’ gaze transferred to Jupiter, who soon returned from the room.

“So Jupiter, how on earth did you reverse the trance?”

“What are you talking about? I’m not Jupiter, I’m Gordon,” said Jupiter, invoking mass surprise among the experts.

The manager proceeded to explain the situation. “Let me reveal the truth behind Jupiter’s magic. It’s certainly true that only the inducer can reverse a trance. So Jupiter hypnotised himself beforehand in order to become Gordon. After becoming Gordon, he was able to reverse the trance put on Robert. So yes, this is how it’s ended up.”

“I see. That method is evidently possible then,” remarked one of the experts.

“But not just anyone can employ this technique. Gordon was a top-class hypnotist, so someone without his prowess would never be able to hypnotise himself into Gordon. It’s only because Jupiter is number-one, with a level of hypnotism exceeding that of Gordon’s that he was able to achieve such a task,” explained the manager.

Before long, all the experts had fixed their eyes on Doctor Jupiter.

“But I’m not Jupiter. I’m Gordon!”

The manager laughed. “Right now, you are one-hundred per cent Gordon. But your role is already over. You can return to your normal self. Reverse the trance you induced on yourself at once.”

“I’m not quite sure what’s going on, but for the time being all I have to do is reverse a trance and everything will be alright. Here we go…” said Jupiter, as he began to try to reverse the trance he induced on himself. However, it was proving rather difficult.

It was the manager who was first to realise the new weight of the situation. “The trance can only be reversed by the inducer himself. When he hypnotised himself, he was Jupiter. But now he’s Gordon. There’s no way he can…” He turned pale and the room fell deadly quiet.

A rather serious looking expert was first to break the silence.

“What’s the big problem? A man was about to spend the rest of his life as a chicken. Under the circumstances, a hypnotist going from number-one to top-class is merely a drop in the ocean!”

The man was of Samurai descent. Of course having Samurai blood means very little these days, but according to the man’s grandmother, the family was proud of a three-hundred year lineage which could be traced back to the Battle of Sekigahara. It was during this battle that their Samurai forefather was awarded the order of merit.

 “You too must become a fine gentleman. Don’t let your family down,” he was often told.

But lately, things weren’t going as planned. After barely scraping through university and becoming an office worker, the man soon acquired a taste for gambling and took to spending every day at the races. It was only a matter of time before he lost his job.

“I just need one outside bet to come through and everything will be fine,” he said bravely.

But this too failed to come to fruition. Scraping together enough money to get by was difficult enough; financing bets was out of the question. All he could do was wander the racecourse in search of bets dropped by other gamblers. There were the odd few who were careless enough to throw away coupons whilst busily placing bets. Walking around in search of these became the man’s livelihood.

“Just one lying around, any old bet will do,” he muttered under his breath. But they were extremely hard to find. The most he could hope for, after a full day of relentless wandering, was one or two bets with almost non-existent returns. It was a miserable way of life for a man of Samurai descent. That old samurai must be turning in his grave, thought the man.

Then one day an outside bet came through and the man enjoyed long-awaited drinks with a friend. He was staggering around with a smile on his face when a strange-looking figure appeared out of nowhere.  

“Come aboard my time machine,” offered the mysterious figure.

 The man wasn’t sure if it was real or a dream, but boarded the machine and placed his request. “Take me to Sekigahara, where my family legend was born!” he commanded.

The surroundings began to change and before long the wasteland of Sekigahara unfolded before his eyes. Red flames billowed here and there and muddy corpses lay wasted on the ground. Somehow the man had made his way to the famous battle scene.

 A Samurai figure could be seen turning over corpses one by one before checking their faces.

So that must be my ancestor, thought the man.

“Just one lying around, the head of any old general will do,” muttered the Samurai under his breath.

There was a short delay between ringing the doorbell and hearing the footsteps, but before long a thick, rough voice replied from behind the door.

“Who is it?”

“Hello. It’s Tamura from the daily M. We spoke on the phone a while ago,” I replied.

As Dr Tanabe opened the door, I noticed the badly lit nature of the room within.

“I live alone you see,” he explained before guiding me to the reception room.

Primitive mannequins and spears, grotesque in nature, lined the display cabinets of the room, and furthest to the rear, a shrunken head hung within a glass case. Its face was bluish-white and its expression cold and disturbing.

“So this is the head in question then?” I asked.

“Indeed it is. And these are extremely difficult to get hold of.”

Dr Tanabe was a well-known explorer as well a somewhat hidden authority on ethnology. He was especially knowledgeable in South American customs and had just returned from a tour of the continent where he had been researching the mysterious techniques used to prepare shrunken heads.

I wasted no time in getting to the main point. “Are shrunken heads still being made now?” I asked.

“Well of course. They are closely linked to the religious beliefs of certain ethnic groups, so production is hardly likely to come to a halt.”

“But the preparation method is being kept a secret from outsiders?”

“That is correct. They rarely let anyone see the preparation process.”

“But you were able to see this during your recent trip?”

“Yes. But it took an incredibly long time to become close enough to the people concerned.”

“Could I ask you to explain it in detail for me?”

“Well it’s something I’ve put my whole life into,” said Dr Tanabe, laughing ironically. “There’s no way I would divulge the details publicly.”

“How about just a brief outline?”

“Ok. Well, you cut a hole into the back of the head and carefully remove the skin and bone, sew up the hole and boil with medicinal plants, then insert a fist sized stone into the middle and you’re done.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes that’s about it. But each stage of the process has a certain knack to it. It’s not that simple. I observed every stage of the process carefully and even brought back with me some medicinal plants.”

“What’s the most difficult part? Could I ask you to explain about that part in detail?”

Dr Tanabe stood up, handed me a drink and proceeded to explain. “First of all, it’s difficult to remove the skin without damaging the facial expression. Secondly, it’s difficult to mix the medicinal plants correctly. Also, it’s difficult to dry the head without destroying the lifelike facial expression. I’ve actually thought about making one myself but then the most difficult part is…”

Dr Tanabe stopped talking, before continuing his explanation slowly and clearly. I noticed the peculiar, bitter taste of the drink.

“Getting hold of the materials.”

Outline by Takashi Atoda

September 19, 2011

It was just before nine on a Sunday morning. Twenty or so library-goers were sitting on a bench in front of the library entrance waiting for opening time. I’d recently moved into a house in the town and after hearing about the public library nearby I’d decided to stop by for the first time.

I used to visit the library a lot as a student. Those libraries of the past were dark, dingy places, but recently they’ve changed their appearance significantly. At the time I’d indulge myself in wide reading, borrowing books with little relation to my studies.

The library was due to open in about ten minutes. Feeling lethargic, I stretched out my spine and stopped myself from yawning.  

When I looked over there was a young man sitting down next to me. Black trousers and a blue sweater, maybe a high school student.  He looked like a typical geek, wearing glasses with his mouth tightly closed. He was studying English vocabulary, mumbling the words without really opening his mouth.

“Do you often come to the library?” I asked.

The young man was a little surprised, but nevertheless gave a speedy reply. “Yes. I almost always come on a Sunday. My house is small so I find it easier to study here.”

“Don’t you want to enjoy yourself on a Sunday?” Judging from the young man’s attitude he was a model student. It made me want to tease him a little, although I knew deep down that it wasn’t the mature thing to do.

“Of course I want to, but that won’t get me into a good university.” His logic was plain and simple.

The young man was holding four or five study-aid type books. It seemed he had no intention of borrowing anything, just using the library as a place to study.

I continued my questioning. “Do you students not read for pleasure?”

“Read for pleasure?” replied the young man, looking puzzled.

“I was just wondering if you read novels.”

“Novels?”

“Yes, Like Soseki Natsume or Ryunosuke Akutagawa?”

“Ah. No I don’t read them. But I know all about them because I had to memorise them for my exam.”

I was a little confused. “Memorise them?”

The young man looked at me and proceeded to explain. “Soseki Natsume was a pioneer of modern literature. His notable works include ‘Botchan’, ‘Kokoro’, ‘Sanshiro’, ‘The Poppy’, ‘And Then’ and ‘Light and Darkness’. ‘Botchan’ is a humorous early work about a reckless Edo boy called Botchan who becomes a middle school teacher in a country town and gets involved in some unexpected events. ‘Kokoro’ is a late work which is an introspection of human greed, with running themes of love and friendship.” He sounded like a walking encyclopedia.

“And what about Ryunosuke Akutagawa?”

“Well he was a writer of short stories so there’s a lot of works. ‘The Nose’, ‘Yam Gruel’, ‘Hell Screen’, ‘In a Bamboo Grove’…”

“I see.” He certainly knew his stuff.

“Most of his works are folklore stories which took their themes from old Japanese tales. ‘The Nose’ is a story about a priest who gets laughed at for having a big nose. ‘Yam Gruel’, is a story about a man who thinks he wants to eat high quantities of yam gruel, but when he tries to eat a lot he loses hope. ‘Hell Screen’ is a story about a crazy artist who is told to draw a picture of hell by his lord and goes as far as killing his own daughter to do so. It is also an examination of the author’s devotion to his own work.”

“You’re pretty clued up, aren’t you? Even though you’ve never read these books.”

“Yes. I learnt it all at cram school. We chose two hundred famous works of Japanese literature and memorised the authors name, the literary characteristics and then the outline of the stories.”

“But there’s no point having novels if you only know the outlines.”

“I disagree. Going out of my way to read every bit of a long novel is a waste of time. If you know the outline, it’s the same as having read the book,” replied the young man, bounding with confidence.

This young man was certainly smart. Remembering in detail all the outlines of novels he’d never read is something I would never be able to do. But somehow I wasn’t quite satisfied.

“It does save time by just reading the outlines, but it’s not the same as reading the novel.”

“Well there’s no point in reading novels in the first place.”

“So doesn’t that mean that there’s no point in reading the outlines either.”

“But they appear on my Japanese test so I’ve no choice but to read them. If I know the outlines, it’s pretty much the same as having read the book.”

“And why are you so concerned about saving time?”

“So I have lots of time to spend studying other things.”

“And why do you want to study so hard?”

“I’m going to enter T University.”

“Why do you want to enter T University?” I persisted in my interrogation. I wasn’t teasing, merely examining the thought patterns of a young genius.

“I’ll enter the school of law, and then I’ll enter the Ministry of Finance.”

“Why do you want to enter the Ministry of Finance?”

“It’s the elite of society. Civil servants have stable lives, and with lifetime benefits they easily do better than workers in the private sector. They get good pensions and if you work for the Ministry of Finance you also have the chance for post-retirement re-employment.” I was somewhat surprised. The young man had a thorough, unobstructed view of his life to come.

“You have indeed made a clear outline of your life. So you really don’t need to go out of your way to live it out now, do you?”

When I came to my senses, it was still a few minutes before the library was due to open. I must have been sleeping. A smart looking young man was sitting beside me busily studying away.

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